I recently had cause to complain to the Local Government Ombudsman (LGO) concerning my dealings with my local planning authority and was stunned at how the attitude of that organisation had changed since the last time I contacted them in 1992. The arrogance of the organisation is beyond anything I have ever encountered from "public service". Are they there to serve the public or just to defend the authorities ?
In August 2005 I was advised by my local authority, South Staffordshire Council (South Staffs) that my neighbour had applied for planning permission to extend his house right up to the boundary of mine. I sent a letter to South Staffs objecting to the application on various planning grounds. On following the matter up, I discovered that my letter had been "filed", forgotten about and that the planning application had been decided without the knowledge of my objections. The council informed me that once the application is approved there's nothing anyone could do to amend the decision. I complained to the council, they admitted maladministration and offered £250 compensation for, as they put it, my "time and trouble in bringing the complaint". The council were of the opinion that all of the points raised in my letter of objection had been taken into account by the planning officer, albeit without the knowledge of my letter, and therefore there was no injustice,
I followed the councils own complaints procedure, appearing before a panel (chosen by the council of course). My argument was that, having received my letter of objection, the planning application should have gone before the planning committee and that members may have visited the site and there must therefore be the chance of a different outcome to the application. The panel did not feel able to disagree with the planning officers of the council so decided no injustice had been done and therefore £250 was a reasonable amount. Next stop the LGO - what a waste of time that was. The council's complaints panel was less biased. The LGO decided without any investigation that there was no injustice - the council had admitted maladministration and £250 was the amount they would recommend in such a case. They therefore refused to take up my complaint.
I then drew the LGO's attention to a similar experience I had in 1992 when, living at a different address (same council- South Staffs), my neighbour started building a wall across the rear of my back garden. In this case South Staffs had failed to notify me of the planning application at all. (Am I unlucky to live in the district with the most incompetent planning department or what?) The ombudsman (Commission for Local Administration in England as it was known then) took the time to visit the site on receiving my complaint (which the current department couldn't be bothered to do) and concluded that I had no grounds to object to that planning application. I accepted that (but do not accept it in the 2005 case). However the conclusion of the 1992 case also said that if I had objected, the matter would have been referred to committee, a site meeting may have been made and therefore "there must exist the possibility of a different outcome". They suggested £500 would be a reasonable amount and this was accepted by myself and South Staffs. On pointing this out to the LGO in 2006, I received a 'phone call from them asking why on earth I hadn't referred to this case in previous correspondence. I replied that I thought the current case stood up on it's own without reference to the previous case. I subsequently received a letter from the LGO (Jerry White) to say that the 2 cases are in fact quite different and that they will not enter into any more correspondence. Furthermore if I write again, I will get an acknowledgement of the letter but no response. I wrote again pointing out how very similar the 2 cases are but as promised he has ignored it.
On further investigation, particularly through excellent sites such as www.ombudsmanwatch.org I was disturbed to find that my experience is not unusual. I have written to my MP Sir Patick Cormack but he seems unwilling to get involved. As Jerry White himself said he is answerable to no-one, not even the office of the Deputy Prime Minister who funds his very cosy existence. It was also facinating to learn that the LGO's in England are all ex-local authority heads whereas in Scotland and Wales they are made up of legal professionals. Let's stop kidding ourselves in England that we have a fair means of investigating local government.Why don't we just say that local government is answerable to no-one, disband the LGO thereby cutting out another layer of government and saving the taxpayer the £12,000,000 per year that the LGO in England costs. Come on it's time for a fairer system to investigate local government incompetence.